In Feature Articles, Turkey / Türkiye

By Amberin Zaman, Al Monitor, July 24, 2017

As outraged observers look on, the trial of 17 journalists and managers of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet began today, the anniversary of the end of Turkish press censorship in 1908.

Journalists and rights supporters carry banner reading ‘Cumhuriyet won’t be silenced’ and copies of Cumhuriyet daily headlined ‘We want justice’ in march to Istanbul courhouse on July 24, 2017 (Azan Kose, AFP)

July 24 is the anniversary of the supposed lifting of press censorship in Turkey, an occasion that is marked by Turkish journalists as a day of celebration. It was therefore sadly ironic that the long awaited trial of 17 journalists and managers of Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s most respected opposition daily newspaper, started today. They face an outlandish range of thinly supported terror charges and each faces up to 43 years if convicted.

The ‘Cumhuriyet 17‘ include veteran columnist Kadri Gursel, who also writes for Al-Monitor; award-winning investigative reporter Ahmet Sik and cartoonist Musa Kart. Their plight is being watched closely by press watchdogs, lawmakers and fellow journalists from Turkey and beyond. The globally acclaimed French cartoonist Plantu was among those to lend support, sharing a biting image via Twitter depicting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s suppression of the press.

Many were at hand to witness the day’s proceedings, injecting an air of festivity and defiance with multi-colored plastic balloons that they popped outside the Cagalayan courtroom in Istanbul.

Steven Ellis of International Press Institute speaks to rights activists at opening of trial in Istanbul of 17 journalists of Cumhurriyet daily, July 24, 2017 (Murad Sezer, Reuters)

“There were hundreds of people trying to get in to watch the case this morning and it turned into a shouting and pushing match that delayed the start,” said Al-Monitor contributor Ayla Jean Yackley. There were dramatic scenes as defendants’ loved ones strained to touch them. Howls of protest erupted when gendarmerie guards intervened to prevent Gursel’s 10-year-old only child, Erdem, from hugging him.

“Why this cruelty, why?” tweeted Umit Nazli Boyner, a prominent Turkish businesswoman. Impunity served up with dollops of cruelty has become something of a hallmark of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party after last year’s failed coup.

Since then, the Turkish authorities have cracked down on suspected coup plotters, most accused of links to Fethullah Gulen, the manipulative Pennsylvania-based Sunni cleric who the government insists masterminded it all. The Cumhuriyet journalists are among tens of thousands of Turkish citizens who have been caught up in the government’s dragnet.

At the last count, at least 150,000 people had been sacked from government jobs and academia and 50,000 or more jailed over their alleged collusion. With over 150 journalists currently behind bars, Turkey remains the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. Yet in a recent interview with the BBC, Erdogan claimed only two them were real journalists. The rest, he insisted in a recent public address, consist of murderers, fraudsters, thieves and child molesters.

The bulk of jailed media workers were employed by now shuttered Gulen-affiliated titles, a crime in and of itself regardless of what they reported or the opinions they aired. Victims who fall under this category include Sahin Alpay, a septuagenarian intellectual who is in ailing health, as well as the respected liberal economist Mehmet Altan. Their plight has attracted far less sympathy among Turkey’s urban secularists, partly because many believe that not only was Gulen mired in the coup but that he helped propel Erdogan to power in the first place. Many others have been imprisoned over their affiliation with pro-Kurdish outlets.

Gursel was the first to take the stand today and Erdogan might have had second thoughts, had he listened to his trenchant defense. “I am here before you today not because I knowingly and willingly assisted a terrorist organization but because I am an independent, probing and critical journalist,” Gursel said as he set about methodically deconstructing prosecutors’ claims that he was connected to Gulen.

Anyone familiar with Gursel’s work knows that he was as fiercely critical of the preacher and his octopus-like network as he is of Erdogan. Sik’s case seems doubly Orwellian because he was jailed in 2011 at the instigation of a Gulen-linked prosecutor over an unpublished book he had written called The Imam’s Army, which chronicled Gulenist penetration of the state.

The absurdity of the prosecution’s case was further highlighted by the chairman of the newspaper’s executive board. Akin Atalay, who is also being remanded in custody, noted that evidence proving his “culpability” included records of a 2011 bank transfer to a worker in payment of a floor polishing job. The worker’s son had apparently dined at a restaurant whose owner was under investigation for financial crimes, hence Atalay is apparently guilty by association.

As of this writing, the hearing of the Cumhuriyet 17 was continuing as the defendants took turns offering their testimony. Meanwhile, the government’s apparent lack of self-awareness was embarrassingly on display today when Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu congratulated “all those journalists who work night and day to arrive at the truth” in a tweet.

His words prompted a sarcastic response from Cumhuriyet columnist Ozgur Mumcu, who tweeted back, “Support from the foreign minister to the Cumhuriyet managers and writers. Thank you, Mr. Minister.”

Read also:
Turkish journalists go on trial accused of supporting terrorism, Reuters, July 24, 2017

Press organizations condemn Turkish media for ignoring Cumhuriyet trial, Turkish Minute, July 24, 2017

PEN International Turkey marks 109th anniversary of press freedom in Turkey, Turkish Minute, July 24, 2017

Turkey’s HDP party begins protest campaign for justice, Rudaw, July 25, 2017

With July 5 arrests, human rights groups become new target of Ankara’s crackdown, by Ali Bayramoglu, Al Monitor, July 21, 2017

Note by new Cold
Cumhuriyet (translates to English as ‘republic’) is the oldest, large-circulation daily newspaper in Turkey. It was founded in 1924 and has followed a secular and republican editorial policy. Beginning in 2015, the newspaper came under heavy attack from the Turkish government due, in part, to its stories that year exposing the NATO-member Turkish government’s covert support to right-wing paramilitaries seeking the overthrow of Syria’s sovereign government. (Wikipedia.)

After much hesitation and stalling, Western mainstream media began to report the plight of mainstream journalists in Turkey. An example of this new-found enthusiasm is on Canada’s state-run broadcaster, the CBC. It established a bureau in Istanbul in 2016, headed by Canadian-Turkish journalist Nil Köksal. Enthusiasm disappears and silence prevails, however, when it comes to the plight of the elected members of the third-largest party in Turkey’s Parliament, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP’s co-leaders, other elected HDP parliamentarians and scores of elected regional and municipal officials from the party have been jailed during the past year, most under charges of aiding and abetting what NATO-member Turkey calls ‘terrorism’.



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